We live right outside of Philadelphia so we’re always in and out of the city. We often pass the National Museum of American Jewish History (NMAJH) and I say to myself, what a cool-looking building. What’s the story? Well, now I have it!

Designed by Ennead Architects (formerly Polshek Partnership), the NMAJH opened in November 2010 and is located on the famous Independence Mall in Philadelphia, PA right down the block from the Liberty Bell.

According to the architects, the two interlocking volumes (one opaque and enigmatic and the other translucent and open) characterize the design concept: unity and harmony without the sacrifice of identity. It also metaphorically represents the continual Talmudic dialogue that animates Jewish discourse. The glass portion of the building was designed to bring in light and convey a feeling of “a generous welcome to people of all ethnicities and religions. The light emanating from this diaphanous prism is a beacon and a lens: a beacon, encouraging visitors to enter and be reminded of their particular experiences, and a lens, magnifying the multiple facets of life in this country, both past and present. Contrasting with the translucent form is an opaque terra cotta structure, a repository that contains the principal exhibition spaces. Its solidity is a metaphor for the strength of Jewish survival and the protection of the freedoms that are fundamental to American history. The warm tones of this masonry enclosure complement the adjacent Bourse as well as the brick structures in Philadelphia’s historic core.”

Inside, the five-story building houses 25,000 square feet of exhibition space, an 85-foot-tall atrium and a 200-seat theater. The terracotta and glass building is topped out with a beacon of light which is meant to symbolize themes of faith and patriotism. The color of the terracotta blends in nicely with the surrounding Federal-style brick buildings.

But the terracotta of the building isn’t just for aesthetics — it’s part of a back-ventilated rainscreen system by Shildan Inc. This system was developed in Europe in the last half of the twentieth century and it has many benefits — energy efficiency, humidity control, long term durability, the elimination of most maintenance. LEED points can be earned from recycling the terracotta and aluminum material. In this case, the aluminum support system is also manufactured with 62% recycled aluminum sourced within 300 miles of the museum. By using an innovative system and eliminating off-gassing from sealants, additional benefits to the environment were achieved. The result is a state-of-the-art museum that is as functional as it is visually appealing.

Project: National Museum of American Jewish History
Architect: Ennead Architects
Area: 100,000 square feet
Year: 2010
Key Materials: Terra Cotta Rainscreen Façade – Shildan
Design Principal: James Polshek FAIA
Management Partner: Joseph Fleischer FAIA
Senior Designer: Robert Young AIA
Project Manager: Joshua Frankel AIA
Project Team: Aran Coakley, Matthew Dionne, Erkan Emre, Mazie Huh, Aileen Iverson, Dean Kim, John Lowery, Craig McIlhenny, Maura Rogers and Jordan Yamada
Exhibit Design: Gallagher & Associates
Photo Credit: Halkin Photography LLC